More cool factoids about New Horizons

Until a couple of days ago, this was the best, most detailed image we had of Pluto:

Pluto before

And now we have this:

Pluto after

We humans can be pretty awesome.

According to NASA’s press release, the accuracy of the New Horizons flyby was, well…out of this world.

New Horizons’ almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space — the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.

The tennis ball thing is amazing enough, but it’s the one minute part that gets me. As one science geek described it on Twitter:

Pluto tweet 1

Pluto tweet 2

I hereby approve the verbing of “science.” We scienced like nobody’s business!

Did you know that New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft we’ve ever launched? Of course it’s all very fun to toss around stats like “faster than 30,000 mph” or “14 kilometers per second,” but what does that really mean in terms we can visualize? xkcd artist Randall Munroe published a good illustration:

Here’s my favorite comparison for putting that speed in perspective: If you were standing at one end of a football field and fired a gun toward the other end, right while New Horizons flew past you, the spacecraft would reach the far end zone before the bullet made it to the 10-yard line.

New Horizons What If

He also mentioned that in the same amount of time, a speeding car would travel about one inch (2.5 cm).

But the best news of all is that New Horizons called home. During the flyby, it was too busy gobbling up all the data it could to pause for a communication, so the project team chewed their fingernails as they waited for the first scheduled reconnection. Given the probe’s proximity to Pluto and any debris that might be twirling around in the planet’s orbit, this was a moment of relatively high potential for something to go kapow. After all, at 14 kilometers per second, all it would take would be a bit of rock or ice the size of a rice grain to destroy the probe.

Here is a team of happy scientists, finding out that their baby has phoned home:

Yep, we scienced really well.

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Cool factoids about New Horizons

New horizons pluto

You’ve probably heard a lot about the New Horizons probe lately, and there’s a good reason for that. Tomorrow, July 14, the probe will fulfill its destiny. After nine and a half years of travel, it will zip past Pluto, madly taking photos and measurements as it goes.

And then—fwoosh!—it will keep going into the depths of space, leaving Pluto behind. The probe will continue its studies of the dwarf planet and its moons, but July 14 is the closest approach. After that, they’re in the rearview mirror.

The first thing any critical person asks when they read that is, “One day of payoff after 9.5 years of travel? Why not drop into orbit and stay there, like Cassini?”

Good question. The first answer is: physics. But the real answer is money.

Here’s the physics part: braking a fast-moving probe—and by fast, I mean “traveling at 32,000 mph”—takes a lot of fuel. You have to rotate it in place and fire thrusters against the direction of travel. Given the speed that must be overcome, that’s a lot of thruster use and a lot of fuel. After braking is accomplished, completing course corrections and maneuvers for orbital insertion takes more fuel.

The money part: launching a probe carrying a big load of fuel is much more expensive than launching a probe carrying a minimum load of fuel. That stuff is heavy. It costs a lot to get it off the ground and into space. And NASA has never been the budgetary favorite of the US Congress.

The New Horizons team had limited funds, so it had to make the same choice that most probe teams are forced to make: give up speed, or give up the duration of study. Now, if you’re studying Mercury or Mars, giving up speed is a good option. They’re not that far away; you can wait a few more months.

But Pluto is way, way, way out there. Several billion kilometers out. Had the New Horizons folks decided to fly slower in order to conserve fuel for braking and an orbital insertion, they might have been retiring by the time the probe arrived.

And that’s why the world’s astronomy geeks are so excited about tomorrow. After 9.5 years, tomorrow is the Big Day.

New horizon approach


Now then: imagine you’re on the New Horizons team, and you’ve been waiting since January 2006 for your probe to make its Pluto flyby. And then, ten days before the big event…the probe goes dark. Zzzt. No data, no connection, nothing. For all you know, it hit an asteroid and went kablooey.

That is exactly what happened to these poor scientists. Suddenly, anticipation turned to terror. Their probe was 4.5 hours away for communications purposes. Every command they sent, every query they tried, would take 4.5 hours to arrive at the probe. The probe’s response would take 4.5 hours to come back. The team had a nine-hour lag time for their repair efforts, and a ten-day deadline. If they couldn’t find and fix the problem in that time, then nine and a half years of waiting was down the toilet.

It was, as the mission leader later said, their “Apollo 13″ moment. Everyone raced to the office and went into crisis mode, and nobody left until it was resolved. The Mission Operations manager slept on the floor of her office two nights in a row.

The official statement given at a press conference during the crisis was that this was an “anomaly” and a mere “speed bump.” In reality, they were all sweating bullets. But they figured it out. The details of exactly what happened, and how the team debugged their probe’s computer from three billion miles away, makes a great story that you can read at the Washington Post.


Although July 14 is the closest approach, that’s not when the scientists will get their data. New Horizons can only transmit at about one kilobit per second, so it will have to store up its data and trickle it back to Earth over the next two or three months. It will be like a never-ending Christmas.


After whizzing past Pluto, New Horizons will head deeper into the Kuiper Belt to examine one or two of the icy bodies out there. All of this data, from Pluto and any other Kuiper Belt object, is brand new stuff to us. We know next to nothing about this distant region of our solar system.


When New Horizons launched, Pluto was still a planet. The decision to downgrade it to “dwarf planet” occurred eight months after launch—and was made by just 424 astronomers who had stayed for the last day of a meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Prague.

New Horizon’s mission leader was quoted as saying, “I’m embarrassed for astronomy. Less than 5 percent of the world’s astronomers voted. This definition stinks, for technical reasons.”

He expected the astronomy community to overturn the decision. He’s still waiting.


When New Horizons launched, there was no such thing as an iPhone. The first iPhone didn’t come out until a year and a half later. That’s how long the little probe has been traveling…and it all comes to fruition tomorrow.

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The strange invisibility of Rui Costa

Rui Costa

As an American, I’m used to seeing my countryfolk focused on and featured in various international athletic events. Eurosport and British coverage of such events always make sure to put the camera on American competitors as well as those of other nationalities, even when the Americans aren’t doing all that well. Apparently, we get coverage by virtue of our citizenship.

At least, that’s my guess, because it’s the only thing that explains the strange invisibility of Rui Costa on every Tour de France he has taken part in.

For those not into cycling, let me explain. Rui Costa is the pride of Portuguese bike enthusiasts and an all-around great rider. He’s currently the national road race champion, and last year he was the world road race champion—the first Portuguese to wear that rainbow jersey. He is the only cyclist to ever win the Tour de Suisse in three consecutive years (2012, 2013, 2014). He won a stage in the Tour de France in 2011, and then won two more in 2013. Right now, he is ranked fourth in the International Cycling Union (UCI) men’s road cycling. Here are the top 20, including many names you’ll recognize if you watch bike racing.

2015 UCI standings

All of which is to say, this man is a star in the international racing scene.

Yet we don’t see him in the video coverage of the Tour de France. The cameras almost never focus on him. The official Tour news updates don’t mention him. Non-Portuguese news coverage doesn’t mention him. I read several articles yesterday about the massive crash during Stage 3, which listed the riders who were injured. Rui was inexplicably left out, despite having had a bike smash into his back at 50 kph after he had hit the tarmac and slid to a stop…and despite being clearly visible on video trying to get up in the aftermath. Though of course the cameras never actually stopped on him.

We play a game of “spot Rui” while watching the Tour. It’s always a challenge, because he’s usually visible for one or two seconds as the camera pans over the riders. But I can’t figure out why we should have to work so hard for it, and why such a top rider is so generally ignored.

Maybe it’s because he doesn’t grandstand. Nor does he throw his bike after a disappointment, or get in fights, or shout at the tour organizers in their cars when they make a decision he doesn’t like. Instead, he focuses on doing his best and staying in contact with his fans, to whom he invariably dedicates his efforts. He’s a true gentleman athlete…and I guess that’s not exciting enough.

Posted in Portugal, sport | 2 Comments

Le Tour is coming!…and other tidbits

Tomorrow is a day my wife and I look forward to all year: the start of the Tour de France. For the next three weeks, we will arrange our work and social lives around the television as we absorb gorgeous scenery, team tactics, mind-blowing athletic prowess, half-insane fans, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They’re all part of the best sporting event of the year.

Tour de france horse

For some odd reason, many non-cycling Americans have no idea why Le Tour is so much fun to watch, as if the scenery and photo-worthy moments such as the one above aren’t reason enough. Which is why the AV Club put together a great list of “10 reasons why you should watch the Tour de France this year.” It’s all true and also serves as an excellent primer for Tour newbies.

We’re excited—and getting ready to cheer on our own Rui Costa, Portugal’s road champion, whose goal is to finish in the top 10. And that’s one of the things that makes Le Tour so different. In what other sporting event do top athletes train all year for a goal of not being number one? But there are so many ways to win in Le Tour, and so many people/teams to root for (not to mention plenty of time to change your mind as the race moves on), that the whole thing is uplifting. It’s not a winner-take-all event. For many riders, merely surviving the whole race is a win. For the viewers, it’s always a win.


In completely different news, a short, profanity-filled video has been making the geek rounds lately. It was taken by a cyclist who saw something really, really weird happening in the sky and pulled over to film it. The cyclist was understandably freaked out by the event, and swore a bit to himself (so the video is NSFW unless you mute the sound), but it isn’t actually an alien signal for invasion. It’s a weather phenomenon called a crown flash. If one were more poetic, one could call it dancing ice crystals.

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait explains the science behind this flashing, moving beacon:

What’s happening here is a wispy cirrus cloud, made up of ice crystals, is being impinged upon from below by a rising cumulus cloud. If the ice crystals in the cirrus are long and needle-shaped, they’ll align themselves with the electric field of the lower cumulus cloud, which is generated by up- and downdrafts inside the cumulus cloud. When the electric field suddenly changes (due to, say, lightning discharges inside the cloud), the ice crystals can snap into a different orientation, reflecting and refracting sunlight in a different direction (note that the plume in the video is the same color as the Sun). They do this as a group, making it look like huge coherent structures are suddenly changing shape.

In other words, you’re watching an electrical field shifting and snapping like a living thing, and moving ice crystals with it. SO cool. Kudos to the cyclist, who—though freaked—did not run away but filmed the phenomenon instead. Astronomy and meteorology geeks the world over are grateful.


In the biology world, artist Stefan Siverud has been painting and decorating urban snail shells in a project called Snailpimp. His efforts certainly destroy any camouflage the snails have, but when a despised species must share its world with humans, sometimes standing out can be an advantage. I’ve seen people crush snails just for the “fun” of it, a concept I don’t understand, but my guess is that none of these decorated snails will ever get stepped on. For more photos, check out Mental Floss.



Speaking of Mental Floss, the site recently had an article explaining how people clean up after their seeing-eye dogs. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I think there’s a special place in the underworld for people who let their dogs crap on sidewalks or in parks and then just walk away from it, so it’s kind of surprising that I never thought about how visually-challenged people deal with this necessary task. Turns out that their dogs are even more thoroughly trained than I’d ever thought. Check out the article for specifics. Busy busy!


And finally, something to make you smile. Dutch punk singer David Achter de Molen performed a rock-god feat at the PinkPop festival in the Netherlands last month: he caught a beer thrown by a fan. While he was crowdsurfing. With utter panache. And did I mention that the beer was in a cup? Check this out.

Beer catch

Over at Slate, a science team tried to recreate this magnificent feat of athleticism—both the perfect throw and the nonchalant catch—and discovered that, while possible, it is much harder than it looks. This moment may go down in music history.

Posted in life, science, sport, video, weather | 7 Comments

Wallpaper Monday

Namibia trees

Beverly Houwing took this impeccably timed sunset photo in Namibia. In her caption for the National Geographic Photography contest, she wrote:

The dead trees at Dead Vlei, in Sossusvlei, Namibia, create stark silhouettes against the intense orange color of the sand. A dune towering 1,000 feet creates a backdrop as the shadow cast by a nearby dune moves across the wall of sand and shades the ground and trees of the dry mud flat.

It looks like a painting with exaggerated colors, but it’s a real landscape.

(Click the image to embiggen.)

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The Adorable Octopus

One of the things scientists and naturalists are often loathe to admit in public is that they find all sorts of things cute. For instance, when I worked at a public aquarium, one of my favorite creatures in the whole place was an anemone about three centimeters in diameter. Most people didn’t even notice it in the tank, but I visited it on a regular basis. Oh, little Proliferating Anemone, I miss you!

So it’s always fun when a scientist declares, on video, that she finds something so darn cute that she’s thinking about enshrining its cuteness in its official taxonomic name.

Meet what might end up being the Adorable Octopus, Opisthoteuthis adorabilis. From the YouTube text:

What do you call a tiny octopus with big eyes, gelatinous skin and [which] is cute as a button? Nobody knows quite yet! Stephanie Bush of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute aims to classify and name this presently undescribed deep-sea cephalopod using preserved specimens and a clutch of eggs housed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I’m guessing MBARI got some worried emails about fragile eggs being under a microscope, because the YouTube text was modified to add:

**DISCLAIMER** from Dr. Stephanie Bush: The Opisthoteuthis eggs depicted in this video are preserved specimens, not the eggs laid at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (which are still being lovingly incubated at MBARI’s Cold Storage Facility!).

Well, that made me feel better. Go, eggs, go!

(Also…did anyone else get a Finding Nemo vibe while watching this video? “I shall call him Squishy and he shall be mine, and he shall be my Squishy.”)

Posted in biology, video | 2 Comments

Wallpaper Wednesday

Mt Fuji at dusk

I love the symmetry of this photo: Mt. Fuji at dusk, taken by Kenichi Sunata.

(Click the image to fujify.)

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It’s a great week for font geeks

For those who love to geek out on the alchemy of designing fonts, this is a week of plentitude. First, Frere-Jones has just published “Typeface Mechanics: 002,” which picks up where 001 left off. This time the discussion centers on degrees of weight, pointing out yet again that simple math doesn’t cut it where the human eye is involved. For instance, the vertical weight of a capital I cannot be mathematically equal to the vertical weight of a capital O. Since the I is straight while the O tapers, the human eye perceives the O as being narrower (or in typographic terms, lighter) overall. Thus, weight must be added in the middle to make it seem equal.

Font weight of verticals

On the other hand, we tend to see horizontal lines and curves as heavier than they really are, so weight needs to be peeled away from those. And these additions/subtractions are not consistent from one font to another, because it depends on the relationship between the horizontals and verticals and how heavy/light/fancy the font design is.

The article is full of clear graphics that beautifully illustrate the concepts. Even if you’re not a font geek but just appreciate the complexities of designing things for the human eye, it’s worth a read.

For the bigger geeks, Apple has put up the “Introducing the new System Fonts” session video on its site. This is the half-hour session from last week’s Worldwide Developer Conference in which a font designer details the new San Francisco system font family to a roomful of app developers. I thought it might be over my head, and the speaker is a tad dry in his delivery, but the graphics are fantastic and the session itself is designed for people who are using fonts in apps, not people who create fonts. So it wasn’t over my head at all, and I was fascinated to learn why this font family has two different sixes and two different nines, and why text fonts (used for smaller type sizes) cannot be the same as display fonts (used for larger sizes). I learned about apertures and fractions and why scaling up doesn’t work, or at least, it doesn’t if you care about aesthetics and ease of use. Before this, I had no idea that a system font family had so many different fonts. No wonder you can’t just substitute any old font in for a system font.

I think font design must be 50% mathematics, 50% biomechanics, and 50% pure artistry. And yes, that’s 150%, but that’s font design in a nutshell: if it makes sense mathematically, then you’ve done something wrong.

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The one we didn’t see and the one we did: Jurassic World and Sense8

My wife and I recently saw the Jurassic World trailer in the cinema, and at its end we turned to each other and said, “Nope.” It was wall-to-wall character clichés. There was the stiff-necked, over-groomed, cold career woman; the brilliant scientist who smiles about an achievement that we all know is going to kill a lot of people because movie scientists are always stupider than regular folks; the kids who get into trouble and must be rescued; and the rumpled manly man who is two steps away from pounding his chest and proclaiming his supremacy. What he actually says is, “If we do this, we do it MY way.”

Make that one step away.

Apparently the special effects are fabulous, but at a certain point, extra-fab effects aren’t enough to overcome stale screenwriting that depends on hoary clichés and pathetic, atavistic sexism. And I appreciate that the director of Jurassic World put all of that into the trailer so we could avoid wasting money on the film.

I’ve read a few reviews, which seem equally divided between “awesome special effects and great fun if you can forget about the cheesy writing and rampant sexism,” and “such bad writing and sexism that even the special effects can’t make up for it.”

Marlow Stern says in his Daily Beast review (which is titled “Jurassic World: A Big, Dumb, Sexist Mess”):

As Claire and Owen travel through the dino-infested rainforests in search of the missing children, he begins to loosen her up through good ol’ fashioned sweet-talkin’. For God knows what reason, Claire is still sporting her work blouse and heels and is very much the distressed damsel, but what do you know, after a few witty barbs he convinces her to roll up her sleeves and tie her shirt in a bow. More sweaty forest shenanigans, and she loses the shirt. And then the heels. Once they’ve emerged from woods, and after avoiding certain death several times, she’s born again: a sweaty, humorous, maternal woman who’s severed her ties to her job and is only concerned with saving her two [nephews]. Oh, and she’s got a man, too.

Jurassic Park didn’t have any of this gendered nonsense—and it was made back in 1993. In Spielberg’s film, which holds up remarkably well, the two protagonists, played by Sam Neill and Laura Dern, are on equal footing. They’re both brilliant doctors who each evade and kick their fair share of scary dino ass. And its patchy sequel, The Lost World, had a kickass woman in the lead, played by Julianne Moore. This new entry is a big step back for a franchise that prided itself on featuring courageous, complex women.

On the other end of the screenwriting spectrum is the Netflix series Sense8, which my wife and I just binge-watched, blitzing through all 12 episodes in four days. It was created, written and produced by the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and J. Michael Straczynski, who has my undying respect for penning the seminal science fiction series Babylon 5. As is typical for JMS, the screenplay is light on clichés and heavy on philosophy.

The people who love Jurassic World will probably hate Sense8. This series expects its viewers to pay attention. It expects us to figure out the bigger picture at the same rate that the characters do, and to do so while simultaneously getting to know eight different characters in eight different locations living very different lives in different cultures. There are four women and four men, all of whom are smart and none of whom pound their chest to proclaim, “If we do this, we do it MY way.” The whole point of Sense8 is that these eight people all have their own skill sets and perspectives to offer the collective, and that they are better off working together than any of them can be alone.

The settings are a delight, bouncing us between San Francisco, Chicago, London (and Iceland), Berlin, Seoul, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Mexico City. The diversity is notable, not just in gender but also in ethnicity and sexuality. There are long conversations about art, religion, philosophy, and how the physical violence others do to us sometimes pales next to the emotional violence we do to ourselves. It is a thinking person’s series.

Which is probably why the professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes give it a 69% rating, stating that “Some of the scenarios border on illogical, but the diverse characters and the creative intersections between their stories keep…Sense8 compelling.”

I can’t remember the last time I saw lack of logic touted on Rotten Tomatoes as a reason to downgrade a film or series. At any rate, the unwashed masses don’t seem to agree with that assessment: the audience rating for Sense8 is 91 percent.

In Jurassic World, you can watch a macho man convert a shrewish woman into a “properly” maternal female. In Sense8, you can watch a gay telenovela heartthrob, who specializes in playing macho men, feel the effects of his first period thanks to his physical connection to one of his cluster mates. The female sensate who actually has her period just rolls her eyes, sighs, and unwraps a tampon. The male sensate reacts with tears, high emotion, and complaints of “My stomach hurts! I think it’s a tumor!” At which point probably half of the viewing audience remembered their first periods and nodded understandingly.

More and more, it seems, the best entertainment is not on the big screen…unless one defines entertainment solely as “spectacular special effects.” It seems that is the one category the movie industry can still win.

Posted in culture, video | 2 Comments


Winner of the Best Short Film at the Nantucket Film Festival, “Dotty” will make you laugh — and then it will break your heart.

Vimeo link.

Hat tip to Inge.

Posted in culture, life, video | 3 Comments